I feel ridiculous giving so much attention this time of year to a fruit of hot summer days, Citrullus lanatus—that is, the species that includes both watermelons and citron melons. After all, for nearly half a year I ignored the citron melons I’d harvested late last summer, though they lay in plain view on the tiled floor of our entry hall. But yesterday I noticed a brown area on one, like a bruise, and when I lifted the melon it spilled its guts and fell to pieces. Looking at the mushy melon chunks lying in a spreading puddle of clear liquid spotted with red seeds, I figured it was time to get cooking the remaining melons.
So I cut one in half, sliced it into slabs, cut off the rind, poked out the many seeds, and diced the flesh. This was a time-consuming job, believe me, but when I was done it was easy to pickle the melon. Here’s how I did it.
Sweet Pickled Citron Melon
I’ve based this recipe on one published in the New York Tribune in 1918, but I’ve omitted a treatment with pickling lime. Citron melon keeps its shape without liming, and, besides, I like the natural soft, chewy texture of the unlimed melon.
This pickle has a clear, lovely look and a pleasant bit of bitterness from the lime—and here, of course, I mean not the white powder but the round, green citrus fruit. Lemon, as called for by the Tribune recipe, is a perfectly good alternative to lime.
6 cups water 6 tablespoons salt 3 pounds peeled and seeded citron melon, cut into ½-inch cubes 1 cup cider vinegar ½ cup water 1 cup sugar ¼ cup honey 1 small lime, sliced very thin 2 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger 1 2½-inch cinnamon stick, broken ½ teaspoon cloves
Combine the water and salt in a pot, and bring the brine to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Add the citron melon, and simmer it for 15 minutes. Drain the citron melon, and drop it into a large bowl of ice water. When the melon has cooled, drain it again.
In a nonreactive pot, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, honey, and lime slices. Put the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves into a spice bag, and put the spice bag into the pot. Heat the ingredients until the sugar has dissolved, and then add the drained citron melon. Simmer the mixture for about an hour, until the melon is completely translucent and the syrup has thickened somewhat.
Ladle the melon and its liquid into pint or half-pint mason jars, including a lime slice in each jar. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try Than my dear wife’s good melon pie. I get a melon from the pit And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.”
I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins ¼ cup brandy 1 5-pound citron melon 1 cup sugar 1 orange 1 lemon 2 cinnamon sticks 2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack–and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.
I first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?
Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.
That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when, in 2011, I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but in 2012 I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon apart from the hard outer rind and the seeds.
In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.
I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.
I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.
I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.
I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.
Citron Melon Preserves
For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.
3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces 2 clementines 3 tablespoons lemon juice 3 cups sugar ¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered
Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan. Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.
Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 half-pints
*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.